Bradley Manning is dead.
The confused and conflicted boy who was perhaps naively idealistic and relentlessly patriotic, who believed in the USA with a conviction that brought him to the fire-filed deserts of Iraq – while most of us sat in our houses and read about it in the newspapers – has left this world. We can argue that he was too good for it, or that he wasn’t good enough. We can say that his revelations – famous or infamous, depending on your perspective – were malicious and dangerous at worst, merely stupid at best. Or you can say he was a hero, and hold him up as a martyr, someone who died for a cause bigger than himself, who threw himself at the mercy of the court (martial) and let his act be a message to the rest of us, to the wide-eyed idealists who might still live within our hearts.
That is how I will mourn him.
From his ashes, a woman will named Chelsea will arise. She’s older than Bradley. Most likely, she’s a bit more cynical. She carries with her the scars of captivity, humiliation, and injustice. She’s seen ugly things. Death, destruction, murder, war. She knows what it’s like to live in close proximity to murderers. She knows the deadened horror of an emotionless voice ordering “Keep shooting, keep shooting,” while children hover in a van ratcheted with bullet holes and voices rise with pride – not shame – declaring, “I think we whacked them all.”
She has a rough road ahead of her, but her conscience is clean.
We can argue about the proper use of pronouns, the timing of Manning’s transgender revelation, or the twenty-five dollars a month it would cost the state for the hormonal therapy she asks for, but what remains clear is that the presence of Chelsea marks the end of the tortured life of Bradley Manning. I don’t know that things will ever be easy for Chelsea, not with what has come before her, not with the uncertainty and the imprisonment of her future. But as she embraces the gender by which she identifies, the relief she feels will free her from the shackles of what was Bradley.
I read Patty Duke’s autobiography, “Call Me Anna,” when I was a teenager. It told of a childhood interrupted by stardom in her turn as Helen Keller on Broadway and then as identical cousins on the Patty Duke Show. What struck me then and has stayed with me ever since was the trauma she relayed when her managers/guardians changed her name to Patty and told her “Anna is dead.” The person she’d been, identified as, was simply gone. In her place was a manufactured child star. That she struggled to reconcile the two identities for the rest of her life speaks to the importance of identity.
I encountered a similar sentiment in an undergraduate education course on the exceptional child. This course introduced me to every kind of affliction that could befall a child (and eventual student.) During a documentary whose title I don’t recall, the narrator explained that to a parent of a child who is not what that parent expected or imagined, there comes a mourning process, as if the child the parent thought he or she would get was dead. It’s only after this mourning process for what was that there can ever be room for acceptance for what is.
While it takes time and work, this is a transition for us too. The line is drawn in the sand marking who were were and who we are to become. We might not all have been innocent in the before. Some of us might have known of war crimes. Some of us promoted war for either financial or righteous reasons. But what connects us all is that none of us are innocent now. Now we know. We have the knowledge of civilian murder in Iraq on our hands. We know that drones strike beyond their targets. We know about torture and we know that the Constitution is applied arbitrarily. We know that only some of us are entitled to quick and speedy trials and some are at the mercy of military tribunals, facing trumped up charges not seen for almost a hundred years.
What we do about it determines who we will be, what kind of country we will accept, and what kind of humanity we demand of ourselves.
We cannot save Bradley. Bradley Manning is dead. Chelsea is the answer to the vultures who feed on the deaths of others. She is the phoenix who rises from the ash.
Now it’s time to save ourselves.